Two layers are out, three layers are in, and Quebec mask-makers are hustling to adjust

Does your reusable face-mask have two layers of fabric and a filter? If not, it’s time to get back to the sewing machine or renew your collection, according to health authorities.

New recommendations from Health Canada on masks are creating some confusion in Quebec, since a variety of designs are sold on the market—but distributors and manufacturers say they’re beginning to adjust.

At Maîtres Artisans in Magog, reusable face-masks are made with a layer of cotton on the inside and a layer of waterproof fabric on the outside. However, co-owner Patrick Couture says he now wants to add a third layer of filter material.

“We should have put in three layers when we started, but that's really not a problem. The material is in stock. It’s just one more step,” he said.

Health Canada modified its recommendations Tuesday around non-medical masks worn to limit the spread of COVID-19.

The federal agency is now adopting the guidelines formulated in June by the World Health Organization, namely the three-ply mask, with one of the layers being a filter.

“A mask or face covering should be made of at least three layers: two layers of tight fabric, such as cotton or linen, and a third (middle) layer of filter cloth, such as non-woven polypropylene cloth,” the Health Canada website now reads.

Adding a filter improves protection "by blocking smaller infectious particles," it said.

Canada’s chief public health officer, Theresa Tam, explained the change on Tuesday by describing the evolution of scientific studies.

MANY MASKS HAVE HAD FILTERS FROM THE START

However, long before the new recommendation, many mask manufacturers and distributors in Quebec were already offering models with double layers of fabric and a pouch that could accommodate a filter.

“It's been interesting trying to follow what the recommendations are, and it's kind of different depending on what country and the authority," said Tatiana Le Coz-Zamozdra of Windmill Creations, a mother-daughter duo that has been churning out masks for months.

"But from the beginning we knew we wanted to give people the option of putting in an extra filter if they thought it was necessary.” 

At Protège-toi.ca, a division of Billets.ca, co-founder Ralph Abi Nader said it was a Thai supplier who suggested this model very quickly after the start of the pandemic.

“They were the first to tell us it took three layers and all that. While everyone was adjusting, they were faster,” he said.

Abi Nader, however, says the company also sells other, more rudimentary models with no option for a filter, and he said he doesn’t plan to withdraw them from sale.

“People just have to follow the news. It is a question of responsibility,” said Abi Nader. “[That model] will be there even if we don't sell a lot of it.”

At Maîtres Artisans, Patrick Couture hesitated on the same question.

“We have a few in stock. I have no idea what we're going to do with them,” said the entrepreneur, whose facility is first and foremost a furniture factory.

“Maybe we'll keep them. Fortunately, we don't have millions of masks in stock.”

LACK OF CLEAR INFORMATION

The Health Canada directive, which comes five months after the World Health Organization's recommendation, was also announced on Election Day in the United States, when public attention is monopolized.

That all added to manufacturers’ feeling of being in the dark, they said.

“We followed Health Canada's recommendations as much as possible. We have to lean on something, and since we are Canadian we work with Health Canada, but I can’t say why they didn’t make the recommendations before that,” said Couture.

The general manager and co-founder of Coop Couturières Pop, Camille Goyette-Gingras, said the design criteria for reusable masks have always been vague.

At the height of the first wave, the Mercier-Hochelaga-Maisonneuve borough cooperative produced up to 50,000 masks per week for non-nursing staff in the health system.

“We never received clear indications,” said Goyette-Gingras. “The language specific to the textile industry isn’t provided, we have no ‘guideline,’ and we cannot have our products approved because they are non-medical material, so we are really in the dark.”

The lack of standards also bothered Quebec's national director of public health, Horacio Arruda.

While supporting the recommendation of his federal counterpart, Dr. Arruda said work is underway at the Robert-Sauvé Research Institute in Occupational Health and Safety to determine specific criteria for the manufacturing of effective reusable face masks. 

Watch the video above to see how the mother-daughter team at Windmill Creations works around changes.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 4, 2020.

--With files from CTV News

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